Time has a way of sanding off the rough edges of historical memory, turning even the most convulsive, contentious lives into opportunities for national triumphalism and self-congratulation. With “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,”the historian David W. Blight wants to enrich our understanding of an American in full who, for more than half his life, wasn’t even legally recognized as such. Now that Douglass is enshrined on his pedestal, shorn of what made him “thoroughly and beautifully human,” Blight notes how the “old fugitive slave” has been “adopted by all elements in the political spectrum,” eager to claim him as their own.
Plenty has been written about Douglass in the 200 years since he was born, not least by Douglass himself, who recounted his life story in three autobiographies — a paper trail of memoirs that Blight deems “both a pleasure and peril” for the biographer. In tracing an arc from bondage to freedom, Douglass cast himself as a “self-made hero,” Blight writes, while leaving “a great deal unsaid.” A number of other books have filled in the gaps — exploring Douglass’s relationships with the women in his life, for instance, as well as his fraught and transformative friendship with Abraham Lincoln — but Blight’s is the first major biography of Douglass in nearly three decades, making ample use of materials in the private collection of a retired doctor named Walter O. Evans to illuminate Douglass’s later years, after the Civil War.
Blight, who has edited and annotated volumes of Douglass’s autobiographies, undertakes this project with the requisite authority and gravity. The result is comprehensive, scholarly, sober; Blight is careful to tell us what cannot be known, including the persistent mystery of Douglass’s father (who was most likely white, and may have been Frederick’s mother’s owner). On the stuff that’s known, Blight is an attentive if sometimes fastidious guide, poring over speeches and texts with the critical equivalent of a magnifying glass. Douglass, Blight says, was a “man of words,” making this book “the biography of a voice.”
That voice took shape and sharpened over time, but it would return again and again to the banks of the Tuckahoe River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in 1818. Twenty years a slave, then almost nine years a fugitive; as Douglass himself described it in his autobiographies (having adopted his new surname from a Sir Walter Scott poem), the first decades of his life were both thrilling and terrifying. Until his abolitionist allies helped to purchase his freedom in 1846, everything he did felt provisional; he lived with the incessant fear of someone who could be plunged back into captivity at any moment.
In April of 2017, I had the good fortune to visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture as part of a business trip. Once in Washington D.C. and at the National Mall, I was thrilled to learn that the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was only a ten-minute walk away, so after my work was done, I headed over. Photos don’t do it justice, but it is an awesome space, and one I’d encourage every American to visit it if ever in our nation’s capital. It’s the quotes that strike you first – the aesthetic beauty of the words coming out of the granite, then the meaning, then the context of each one of them. Like the MLK we know publicly, it is equal parts solemn, potent, righteous and wise.
I’ve since read that the grounds of the Memorial, which opened to to the public on August 22, 2011, cover four acres and includes the Stone of Hope, a granite statue of Dr. King carved by sculptor Lei Yixin. The inspiration for the memorial design is a line from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” In a word, it is formidable. MLK stands as a beacon of strength, hope and possibility, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and inequity and injustice. Reflecting upon the man, his journey and his words is of course doable from anywhere in any space, but there is something incredibly special about being to do it where he is honored in the same area as other lauded architects of this country such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
There are fourteen quotes around the memorial – above are photos of the ones that I was able to get clear photos of before it started getting dark on my day. Enjoy and Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Civil Rights were 100 years apart, but both changed the nation and expanded freedoms.
Beginning Friday, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture is presenting a walk back in time through two eras. A new exhibit, “Changing America,” parallels the 1863 emancipation of slaves with the 1963 March on Washington.
WASHINGTON (AP) — Actress and activist Jada Pinkett Smith urged Congress on Tuesday to step up the fight against human trafficking in the U.S. and abroad. The actress testified during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing that she plans to launch a campaign to raise awareness and spur action against human trafficking and slavery. She said the “old monster” of slavery “is still with us,” almost 150 years after President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation that freed slaves in the U.S.
“Fighting slavery doesn’t cost a lot of money. The costs of allowing it to exist in our nation and abroad are much higher,” the actress said. “It robs us of the thing we value most, our freedom.” She said the issue was brought to her attention by her daughter Willow, 11, who sat nearby with actor Will Smith, Pinkett Smith’s husband and Willow’s father. The Smiths all wore blazers over T-shirts that read, “Free Slaves.” The hearing room was filled mostly with young people, some trying to take photos of the famous family.
With her father’s arm around her, Willow remained attentive to her mother’s testimony and often whispered to her father. At least 30 minutes into the hearing, Will wrapped his gray blazer around Willow. The actress called for an extension of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which provides funding to combat trafficking and help trafficking victims. The act also created a task force, chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, which coordinates among federal agencies to implement policies against human trafficking.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., pledged to try to gather bipartisan congressional support to further fund the act.
The State Department estimates that at least 14,500 people are trafficked to the U.S. annually.